The Prophet as character archetype has a substantial history as one of our expected religious or mythological personas, but also has close associations with our more modern archetypes of the visionary or catalyst (detailed in the C entry for this series).
“Remember the truth, before it’s too late” ~ Prophet Motto
“I Do not Teach, I simply Reveal” ~ Oracle Motto
The prophet or oracle is more normally a secondary or tertiary character, formed mostly by archetype (what they wear, how they act, and by their age, and their role in the story). This type of character normally sits outside of the main storylines, offering mystic or divine guidance when consulted by lead characters.
There are a few cases where a charismatic prophet gathers a following and can lead changes through the storyline.
Take care with the tropes or stereotypes now associated with the prophet. In fantasy particularly, the Prophesy, often proclaiming the coming of a chosen one (another stereotype), has been overdone.
The Prophet as Wise Old Man/Woman and other Jung Archetypes
Wise Old Man / Wise Old Woman
One of the basic archetypes of Carl Jung, the Wise Old Man is not often detailed, unlike the other Jung archetypes of mother, trickster or hero. Perhaps this is because it’s easily understood. In Jung’s full archetypal system, the Wise Old Man or Wise Old Woman, are values of Mana, or the supraordinate” personalities – these are archetypes which stand for wholeness of self. This is the self (or a character) reaching full maturity, where most of us hope to find some wisdom from the events of our lives.
The wise old man as prophet is an important archetype within the context of culture and religion, and is one found within certain fictional genres:
The Wise Old Woman appears regularly through fairy tales, the wise old man is perhaps more likely to be found through certain fantasy or science fiction stories as mentor and coach to a hero, and is also found in any stories which require an older expert.
Their “wisdom” can be detoured by a shadow of jadedness (as in the jaded old cop trope), or fully negated by false prophets and similar negative archetypes.
The Prophet as Sage and Magician
Jung did list a Sage and Magician as archetype, but did not specify the Prophet, although this archetype may well sit between the sage and magician:
In more ancient history people would have recognised Prophets (as found in the Bible’s Old Testament) as visionaries, charismatic leaders, and healers (shamen). These are all recognised within the “Magician” archetype. Jung’s “Sage” is a more modern rendition – historically they were philosophers or teachers, who nowadays have taken on the mantle of scientist, researcher, analyst and expert or motivational speaker. TED Talks is a sage brand. And some of those talks found within TED may turn out to be prophetising, or at least reminding us of certain bodies of universal knowledge.
Magicians as Visionaries are more readily accepted even in today’s society, Sages are the new Youtube and social media stars, while Prophets, with their proclamations of injustices or warnings of consequences, often are rejected by the group they are warning within.
The Wise Old Woman as Crone or Goddess
The Wise Old Woman also has a history beyond our more modern religious understandings or folklore. As Earth Goddess, and the triple goddess aspect of Crone: the Ancient Greek Pantheon had Hecate, the crone dark goddess, Ancient Celtic goddesses include many, such as the Morrigan who contains a crone aspect, signifying learned wisdom.
Of course, with the application of the Patriarchal systems though Ancient Greece, Rome and elsewhere, the once-great Earth Mother Goddesses were usurped, and later the crone archetype took on a much darker tone with crone as wicked witch.
Shaman, Prophet and Sage
Although often associated together, there is a difference between the classical archetypes of shaman, prophet and sage.
The Shaman is about healing – either physically or mentally (so, has other names of medicine man, herbologist, witch, healer, and latterly, psychologist etc).
The Sage is about a quest for goodness or holiness (with other names such as priest, monk) or knowledge (teacher, guide).
The classical Prophet figure stands for a search for truth and justice – basically applied knowledge. In our Religious terms, we can see the commonality between Sage and Prophet. But outside of religion, the Prophet or Oracle reminds us of social justice and eons-old laws of the land and universal morals and teaching. The Prophet is about humanity.
Generational Theory and the Prophet
Generational Theory is a theory developed by William Strauss and Neil Howe which proposes that Western society (America) has a cycle of generations and archetypes which cycle over one human lifespan (approximately 70 years).
The cycle, or saeculum, divides a human life into four phases or turnings which in turn are cycled through the stages of childhood, young adulthood, midlife and elderhood. Turnings also have an associated season and archetypal nature. Depending on which generational years a person is born in, they then cycle through four different archetypes through these turnings.
- Lost (Nomad, born 1883-1900) The generation that gave the 1920s its roar.
- G.I. (Hero, born 1901-1924) The “greatest generation,” which fought WWII and built up the nation during its post-War boom.
- Silent (Artist, born 1925-1942) They grew up as quiet, sensitive types and then had mid-life crises in the 1970s.
- Boomer (Prophet, born 1943-1960) The rebellious generation which gave America its famous 1960s generation gap.
- Gen-X (Nomad, born 1961-1981) The latchkey kids of the 1970s; they have fared the least well in post-revolutionary America.
- Millennial (Hero, born 1982-?) The “babies on board” of the 1980s who have been the focus of adult attention ever since.
- Homeland (Artist, born ?-) The Homeland Generation is probably being born now, or at least will be soon.
And from this listing you can see that the generations cycle through four different archetypes – the Nomad, the Hero, the Artist and the Prophet.
I was personally born on the cusp between baby boomer and Generation X, so in this theory took on the mantle of Prophet in my earliest years, and am now moving through Hero, heading to my final quarter of Artist (which suits this writer just fine). My daughter was born on the cusp between Millennial and the next generation, here termed Homeland. As a digital native she does appear to also be of a Hero nature with Artistic tendencies growing stronger by the year. This would suggest that when she hits retirement years, it will be with the wanderlust of the nomad.
Whether you accept anything of the generational cyclic theory or not, it is an interesting exercise to consider how the Prophet archetype is actually needed at two levels – in society and individually within a life at a certain stage. It is the internal and external prophets who remind us of the wisdom of common human preachings and rules.
Oracles and Doomsayers
Prophets as Oracles have almost taken on a stereotypical archetype. Nowadays if we think of Oracles, we tend to see them as an older woman wrapped in robes, forseeing future troubles after seeking the knowledge through some mystical practises. If a man, an Oracle can take on the mantle of billboard-wearing street-corner doomsayer, preaching the fall of civilisations through nature, God or an asteroid.
The mysticism/hocus pocus and future predictions aspects to how we now see Oracles has muddied our eyes of what was, in fact, the Prophet historically. The Prophet is about applying social knowledge where it has been forgotten, and forecasting the outcome of certain behaviours or trends.
Of course, nowadays many oracle’s messages are met with scepticism, and in some well-known cases, muddied by powerful politically or financially motivated dirt campaigns to disempower or rebut the warnings. But we still inherit many of our common sayings and words of wisdom from the archetype –
- Turning a blind eye (to something we should be seeing)
- Playing ostrich, with our head in the sand (if we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist)
- See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil
- The blind leading the blind (about false prophets)
Recognising the Prophet
- Prophets hold a message from the divine – this may be a divine entity, but also from a human understanding of moral right and wrongs. This message is on behalf of all of humankind.
- Prophets may appear (to others around them) to be out of touch with their times. They will be out of the mainstream, often secluded as hermits or singular academics etc.
- If they have found a following, they will often be very focused and charismatic leaders, upheld as visionaries and catalysts for change.
- A milder form of the prophet is the wise old people who are sought out for mentorship, guidance and wisdom.
- Prophets are in touch with reality. They will notice things which pass by most others.
- They tend to forecast dire consequences with how the society around them are behaving or in common belief systems.
- Most people will not recognise or remain in denial of the truth to a prophet’s warnings, perhaps not before it is too late.
- The prophet has a journalistic and analytical nature – they will seek out knowledge and learnings from the past, present, and future (sometimes the later by mystical means, but this could also be by scientific extrapolation or using technology)
- The Prophet as Oracle will provide some foreshadowing for future events.
- Oracles tend to remain gentle and passive and neutral while gifting people with their wisdom. In some cases they will be sought out for their wisdom. But they typically will not provide action towards forcing an outcome. They are watchers and listeners, sometimes mentors, but not typically full heroes.
Example Prophets and Oracles
Real life is full of prophets in our religions and myths, but also throughout every aspect of history. Confusious comes to mind easily, helped by the brevity of quotes and lately by the ease of putting his phrases into social memes.
The Dalai Lama could be considered a modern day religious prophet with a world-wide following. However note that Buddhism does not hold a word for prophet, and for many Buddhists the Lama is just a man who preaches certain universal reminders. And many righteous people of Christain faiths proclaim that the Dalai Lama is a false prophet based on differing interpretations of who the real God is, or how a prophet must make prophesies which come true. Be aware of this if you create a character you call “Prophet.”
On the darker side more modern “prophets” such as Jim Jones and David Koresh or others who claim to speak to the divine or are the divine have been involved in the deaths of many cult followers.
Mythically, Greek God Apollo had the power of prophesy, and gifted this on Cassandra. Seers and Oracles appear throughout many mythologies, and before the term “prophet” was used in the Bible.
Fictionally, Yoda from Star Wars, takes on the mantle of confusious-like wisdom spun out into Yoda-speak. Whoopi Goldberg played a recurring role of Guinan, on Star Trek Next Generation, a mysterious hypersensed oracle who provided wise but neutral words of advice to many characters while hosting the Enterprise’s bar, Ten Forward. Guinan even dressed in robes which highlighted her oracle role.
The television series Atlantis featured a mature woman as a literal Oracle, who forsaw the future. The Matrix movie series had a similar female Oracle. Both are mature women. The DC Universe has an Oracle superheroine character, the alter-ego for Barbara Gordon. Other superhero comic characters have had the gift or prophesy or seeing into the future.
Harry Potter’s magical world features wizards who study to be Seers – Professor Sybill Trelawney features predominantly as a seer who is thought to be a charleton for much of the series. In fact, it was Trelawney herself who first made the prophesy concerning Harry and Voldemort which the entire series is based upon.
Disaster action movies such as Armageddon or San Andreas often begin with a scientist as prophet, who has information about a coming disaster which nobody, including other scientists will listen to, until it is too late.
Other Names, Associates and Origins
- Other names: Prophet, Wise Old Man/Woman, Oracle, Seer
- Associations: Sage, Priest, Catalyst, Visionary, Shaman, Magician, Crone/Goddess, Mystic, Fairy Godmother, Judge, Mentor, Guide, Fortune-Teller
- Sub-archetypes / stereotypes: Blind Seer; Enlightened Oracle, Monk or Spiritualist. The doomsayer is a shadow stereotype.
- The Whistleblower and websites such as Wikileaks may be truth-acknowledging forms of the modern day prophet, although both leave movement on that outed knowledge for others to action.
- The corrupt government works to deny or make invisible geniune prophets; or help out a shadow of the prophet archetype. Sub-archetypes of this are media smear campaigns, corrupt scientists (who lose or change research results), and political burying.
- Jaded, Weary or Reluctant old experts (ie the Jaded Old Cop trope), Hermits or Social Misfits, and Once-Was-Heroes who reluctantly mentor the new hero.
- False Prophets (Cult Leaders)– those that provide Oracle like wisdom and claim to speak from the divine to secure attention, or build a God-like following or idolisation for themselves.
- Biased Prophets – those who have sold out their vision to a high bidder, or altered their prophesies to fit with what society expects.
- Destroyer/Manipulator – prophets with tainted visions may become destroyers of particular elements of society ie Hitler, Stalin
- Doomsayer – this character only preaches doom and gloom, the end is nigh. Comes across as too wacky to listen to.
Part of 2016’s Character Archetype Series (A-Z) @ Hunter is Writing.